It Was 40 Years Ago Today
With 'Sgt. Pepper,' the Beatles indulged their whims -- and changed rock forever
By RUSS SMITH
It's possible for two reasonable adults, probably older than 45, to argue for hours about the most significant pop music event of the 1960s. My own vote would be cast in favor of the Beatles' first appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in February 1964, but a very close second is the release of their "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," the majestic album that will be 40 years old in early June. It's not that "Sgt. Pepper" is my favorite record from that era -- Bob Dylan's "Blonde on Blonde" is -- but there's no denying the extraordinary influence that the Beatles' most famous achievement had not only in the music industry but this country's popular culture as well.
"Sgt. Pepper," the group's first album that wasn't supported by a world-wide tour, captured, to use a word that didn't become a cliché for years afterward, the "zeitgeist" then, impeccably in sync with the "Summer of Love," "flower power," psychedelia and the youthful lifestyle of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. That the Beatles, weary of avoiding hordes of fans and tabloid reporters, abandoned live concerts was in itself a radical shift of gears, but spending more than four months in a recording studio on a single project, and a "concept" album at that, was unheard of. Revisionists today, when critiquing the Beatles' discography, aren't quite as rapturous about "Sgt. Pepper" as millions of fans were in 1967, but the immediate impact of the album can't be overstated.
When "Sgt. Pepper" appeared, it was as if a massive block party had appeared outside your window. I was nearly 12 years old at the time and when one of my four older brothers came home with the highly anticipated new Beatles record, we listened to it over and over, marveling at the sheer audacity of songwriters John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Doug, overwhelmed by enthusiasm and hyperbole, declared, matter-of-factly, "The band has changed its name forever and rock 'n' roll will never be the same."
And it wasn't just the music. The album cover itself was breathtaking, a puzzling and colorful collage by Peter Blake that showed the band, in gaudy mock-military costumes, presiding over the burial of the "old" Beatles, with scattered mug shots of high and low cultural icons hovering in the background. You'd go cross-eyed trying to figure out just how many notables were depicted -- a mass of pop art that included Marilyn Monroe, Karl Marx, Aldous Huxley, Marlene Dietrich, Sonny Liston, Laurel and Hardy, Oscar Wilde, Marlon Brando, Leo Gorcey, Bob Dylan, Lenny Bruce and Mae West.
The presentation was a triumph of packaging, and included for the first time the printing of lyrics on the back cover. That the group had reached this point a mere three years after the first rush of "Beatlemania" was astonishing, and the songs simply ratcheted up the sense of momentousness provided by the record sleeve.
Relieved from the pressure of performing live, the Beatles were able to record songs that were, even in a relatively primitive studio, filled with overdubs, backward tape loops, snippets of orchestral crescendos, a cowbell here, a tin horn there, creating a sound and style that was quickly, for better or worse, aped by the band's peers and imitators. Aside from the technical innovations, the 13 songs ushered in yet another phase for the Beatles, one that was far more introspective, grandiose and certainly informed by their recreational use of drugs.
Forty years later, it's easy to dismiss such lyrically slight songs as Mr. McCartney's "When I'm Sixty-Four" or George Harrison's meandering, sitar-driven "Within You Without You," but the bulk of "Sgt. Pepper" stands the test of time. For example, John Lennon's "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!" is about an evening vaudeville romp where "Henry the Horse dances the waltz" and men leap through "a hogshead of real fire!" Another standout is Mr. McCartney's "Fixing a Hole," a dreamy and druggy meditation about fame and drudgery. He sings about "filling the cracks" in his door that "kept [his] mind from wandering," and chastises those who "disagree and never win and wonder why they don't get in my door."
It's not exactly T.S. Eliot, as some said at the time, but it's a long way from "I Want to Hold Your Hand."
On one point there is almost universal agreement: "A Day in the Life," a five-minute Lennon-McCartney collaboration that concludes "Sgt. Pepper," is the group's most accomplished song. Combining references to British current events and the narrator's utter boredom with urban routines, the song endorses the notion of dropping out of society, as Mr. Lennon sings, dreamily, "I'd love to turn you on."
Although "Sgt. Pepper" received almost unanimous raves when it was released, a significant dissident was Richard Goldstein, who panned the album in the June 18, 1967, New York Times. Mr. Goldstein, roundly pilloried after the review was published, complained the new release was "busy, hip and cluttered." He concludes: "We need the Beatles, not as cloistered composers, but as companions. And they need us."
As was soon evident, however, the Beatles didn't "need us," and, in fact, didn't need each other. The group disbanded just three years later. Mr. Goldstein was partially correct in saying that "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" was "precious," but 40 years later I can't think of a single album that was more influential in changing the way that lyricists, producers and fans went about making and consuming popular music.
It's said that Mr. McCartney in particular was inspired by the Beach Boys' 1966 landmark album "Pet Sounds," in which leader Brian Wilson labored in the studio to create a unified set of songs that challenged the listener -- and his competitors -- with its musical complexity. But it was the Beatles, so popular and wealthy that their record label had to cater to what were considered "whims," who topped Mr. Wilson (artistically and commercially) with "Sgt. Pepper." It was no longer a given that a rock/pop group would dash off an album as quickly as possible to minimize cost, and talented young men began to exert more control over studio production, a process of increased sophistication. The release of "Sgt. Pepper" marked the shift of power in the music industry -- not all that dissimilar to the advent of free agency in Major League Baseball -- from the "suits" to the stars, and to this day the balance hasn't changed.
Mr. Smith writes a weekly column for New York Press.
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